The Cleveland Browns have added a significant amount of talent to the defensive side of the ball this offseason, but they are going to need more from Myles Garrett than they've gotten in any season thus far in his career. It's not about his production or getting more out of his talent coming off of an All-Pro season, but Garrett will need to do more when it comes to leadership and finding ways to elevate his teammates.
So long as Garrett is on the field, he's one of the best defenders in the NFL. He's averaging .83 sacks and .19 forced fumbles per game thus far into his career. With more talent around him, he could hit career marks both personally as well as that of the team.
Up to this point in his career, Garrett has been surrounded by players that were either his peers or players he could look up to even as he was a superior talent. This year, that is no longer the case. In addition to being a superstar talent, he's now the longest tenured defensive lineman on the team by a significant margin. In many ways, it has become his room, his defense and his team.
A relatively quiet, thoughtful player when he was drafted by the Browns as the top overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett focused on living up to the hype of his selection and led more by example initially. He has been using his voice more with each passing season and became one of the main leaders of the team in 2020, but the 2021 roster will need more from Garrett as a person than any of his previous four years.
For various reasons, the Browns have moved on from multiple players on the defensive line. The Browns released Adrian Clayborn due to fit and Sheldon Richardson due to cost. Larry Ogunjobi signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency and Olivier Vernon, perhaps the most significant, suffered an Achilles' injury, which leaves him in limbo for the 2021 season.
Vernon was a consummate professional that proved valuable in the locker room as well as on the field. Revered by teammates, Vernon helped to Garrett expand his game by showing what was possible to achieve with an advanced understanding of technique and angles. Even if Vernon never possessed the raw physical talent of Garrett, he was able to play at a high level because he was so proficient.
Vernon also helped some of the younger players on the roster, which included Jedrick Wills in his rookie year at left tackle. Vernon helped Wills by showing him what he could expect from NFL caliber edge rushers. Beyond having something of value to teach, Vernon understood that by helping Wills, it would make the team better.
The Browns still maintain a good relationship with Vernon as he rehabs from his Achilles' injury and he may even be talking to some of the players within the locker room, but not having him in the building on a daily basis as they did the previous two years leaves a a void.
Richardson was a more vocal player who was the main cog in the defensive interior the past two years. The Browns really don't have a player like that anymore, at least in terms of sweat equity. Jordan Elliott, entering his second season in the NFL, currently has the most reps in a Browns uniform at defensive tackle.
In addition to being a friend Garrett has had since the two were drafted in the same rookie class, Ogunjobi was another positive influence in the locker room. Ogunjobi, like Garrett, is extremely intelligent and someone else who has always been hyper focused on improving his physical talent. They were kindred spirits in their pursuit of excellence.
In their place, the Browns have brought in players like Jadeveon Clowney, Takkarist McKinley and Malik Jackson. The Browns also have Andrew Billings coming back after a year where he had opted out, Curtis Weaver returning after being on injured reserve all of last year and adding a pair of rookies in fourth round pick Tommy Togiai and free agent rookie Marvin Wilson.
Even if a player like Jackson might want to be a vocal presence in the locker room, he won't have the same level of gravitas Garrett does, both from the talent as well as sweat equity within the organization. His voice is important with the defensive tackles and as the season proceeds it will likely grow on the defensive line overall, but Garrett's is more impactful right now.
Jadeveon Clowney, at least by reputation, has never been someone that offers much in terms of a locker room benefit. That doesn't make him a bad teammate, but he's just not going to provide what Vernon did nor is he being asked.
Both McKinley and Clowney are players trying to recapture promise, success from earlier in their careers as well as increasing their financial outlook for the future. Each player has remarkable talent, but so much about it is consistency and eliminating what can often be described as a rollercoaster where each can have a monster game where they look dominant and then being relatively invisible in others.
Sheldon Richardson experienced the same phenomenon with the Browns. There were games he was integral to winning games such as against the Tennessee Titans in 2020. There were others where he wasn't a great matchup and was largely held in check.
Elliott is still trying to prove himself in the NFL while Weaver, Togiai and Wilson have yet to play their first NFL snap.
No one is asking Garrett to act as an extra defensive line coach or a coach at all, because that's not what his teammates need from him. There may be some things that players can pick up from him in terms of technique, but they need a leader and a teammate.
The first element that Garrett needs to provide is the one that is the easiest for him to do because he's been doing it. He needs to set the standard and show what is expected to be a Cleveland Brown. Whether it's through the videos released on social media or just his commitment to working hard in the offseason, making the most of practices, staying focused in meetings, Garrett is constantly reinforcing to teammates just how dedicated he is to getting better.
Garrett released a video announcing his attendance to OTAs, which may have been a message to teammates as much as it was to anyone else. It's not to call anyone out, but particularly for the defensive line, it's letting them know he will be there to work and they want to benefit from him, that's where to be.
If someone as talented as Garrett is pushing himself hard to get better, players without that same level of talent are pushed to work harder to try and make up the difference.
For rookies, it helps show what it takes to make it in the NFL and just how exclusive the league is. Free agents coming into this team get to see what is expected from the Cleveland Browns, which might be different from their previous teams.
The second aspect of teambuilding is simply caring. Caring about his teammates, making it clear to these incoming teammates that they are important to Garrett and the overall success of this football team.
In a sport so often described in terms of a brotherhood or family, the root of those concepts is an unbreakable bond. Love. It's something that requires effort, but the payoff is significant.
As easy as it is to be cynical about professional football, because players are getting paid what can be incredible amounts of money, this still matters. There are a certain element of players who don't love football and view it as a job, just like someone working a traditional 40 hour work week.
And just like people who work a job they may not love, organizations that take the time to care and value their employees, making them feel like they are valued can help fill some of that void. As a result, it can motivate people to care more about doing a job they might not otherwise be interested in doing for the sake of the team they have built. Even some that do love the game can benefit from the added motivation.
Both McKinley and Clowney were asked how important it was to know the Browns wanted them in their introductory press conferences.
"It means a lot. If you are wanted by somebody, you can tell that somebody really wants you and they are going to use you the right way. That was another big part in me making my decision." - Jadeveon Clowney
The Browns as an organization showed how valuable forging those bonds could be ahead of the 2020 season when head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry took control of the team.
Presented with the challenge of the pandemic that limited their ability to practice as well as social unrest in the form of protests over civil rights, all of which had various impacted players differently, the Browns saw this as an opportunity to tear down the walls separating players from each other.
Be it race, geography, religion, politics or culture, the concept of a professional football team pulls from so many different elements of society. The Browns took the time to get players to begin to understand where their teammates were coming from, which in turn got them to be more invested in each other.
On the field, playing for the person next to them is a powerful force. Not wanting to let the let a teammate down can push a player further than they thought possible. A principle that carries over into everyday life.
Additionally, the Browns empowered players to speak about what is important to them and encouraged them to use their voice in ways that could produce change. They even helped shape how the Browns organization approached some of these issues. That agency for players give them a sense that is their team rather than just playing on a team, someone else's team. It can also motivate players to give more. It's also valuable in terms of giving players a reason to stay with the Browns even when presented with lucrative opportunities to go elsewhere.
Despite plenty of excuses to struggle, including the pandemic shortened offseason, a new coaching staff and learning new systems, the Browns overachieved in 2020, going 11-5 and winning a playoff game. They had a chance to go to the AFC Championship. Talent and more effective coaching are both critical in that equation, but this added element likely helped them go just a little bit further, both in specific games as well as the season overall.
The idea of the Browns having as many as nine new starters on defense in 2021 is exciting because it means the Browns have more talent. It's also a challenge to incorporate them and recreate that feeling of agency, ownership and family.
In this respect, Garrett and players like Denzel Ward, who are the leaders of this defense, can look to Jarvis Landry, who has embraced, lived this element of team building.
Landry has really shined when it comes to embracing players, making them feel valued and building that brotherhood. Perhaps the Browns were too reliant on this when Landry initially was initially acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, almost trying to get him to remedy issues he shouldn't have been asked to deal with in Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman and then Antonio Callaway a year later.
Since Berry took over, it has had more positive results, allowing him to guide teammates in better position to focus on football. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz, basically as soon as they were drafted, were working out with Landry in Jupiter, Florida. And in both cases, those players came out feeling more confident and more empowered, the prescribed intent of the effort.
To Landry's unending credit, it's not easy to help what could be his eventual replacement, but that has never stopped him. This is often the major issue that can get in the way of creating the desired environment. It's been Landry's natural impulse and one that continues to pay dividends to the team.
Baker Mayfield does the same thing inviting skill players to his home in Austin, Texas or like this year, going to Florida to workout with his receivers.
Far less public, the Browns offensive line has been able to do this under the leadership of Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter.
Being established, be it financially or in one's role within the team makes it easier to try to build those bonds. In fact, it's what makes it so important, because so many other players aren't afforded the same opportunity. Careers are short and players can be traded or cut. As valuable as it is to build a team concept, it tends to be pushed down the list of priorities.
There's no one way to do build these bonds, so Garrett has to find his own authentic way to approach it.
Even though Clowney is a veteran, 28 years old and established in his career, he represents a huge opportunity for Garrett. The fact that Clowney is joining his fourth different team in as many seasons is all the more reason for Garrett to reach out to him in hopes of making him feel like he's a part of something rather than just a mercenary, a hired gun.
Clowney has talked about how much he looks forward to avoid having to face double teams across from Garrett. It's possible that because he was drafted by the Houston Texans and immediately benefited from having J.J. Watt on the same defensive line that he might not have appreciated it as much as he should have at the time.
Between that and the wisdom that comes from age as well as being closer to the end of his career as opposed to the beginning, perhaps Clowney is more willing to embrace the opportunity with the Browns and embrace what Garrett can offer him, both in terms of talent as well as comradery.
Should Clowney embrace the idea of playing for the man next to him, playing hard in part because he's afraid to let Garrett down, the team will benefit immensely.
If McKinley feels like his new teammates are invested in his success, he can be a major role player that improves the Browns pass rush and helps them with dual threat passers.
In the event the younger players feel more confident, that they can contribute to this team, even as they have Super Bowl aspirations, the Browns see a better defensive line rotation.
Garrett has demonstrated that he understands that even if he's the best player in the league, he needs his teammates to be effective in order for the team to achieve the success he seeks. As his contract goes up and into the new extension, the limits his earning power puts on the salary cap will only increase how much they need him to elevate his teammates.
The fact the Browns were willing to move away from four veterans on last year's defensive line and assemble the group they have suggests they believe Garrett is ready to provide the leadership element this group needs. It's entirely about the approach Garrett chooses to take and awaiting results that might not be evident to the general public for months.